Posted by: facetothewind | January 30, 2016

Farewell Malaysia

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Moving away from a place is like dying and being allowed to attend your own funeral — only worse because you have to be there for the un-fun parts like getting rid of the furniture and cleaning out the fridge and the scary junk drawer. But the fun parts are the farewell luncheons, the free drinks, and the people coming forth to say goodbye, the friends sending the crying face emoticons. These are the same people who normally are too busy to see you, who, had they made time for you during your tenure in this place, you might not have moved. But leaving is a chance to take stock of your life and see where you might possibly have had an impact or made a difference in someone’s life, even in a small way.

Take for example one of my main pet peeves in life: unconscious use of resources, wastefulness, and littering. I’ve complained bitterly about Asia’s reckless use of plastics and its unwillingness to reuse or recycle. How many times have I purchased an item and handed the cashier my own bag only to have them put my items in a new bag. And then when I say, “No plastic!” they put the new bag in my re-used bag. Now I have doubled my domestic bag population and not for lack of trying. I simply cannot get my message across in Asia. Not in concept. Not in practice.

But the other day something miraculous happened. I was shopping at the Regalia Pasar Mini – the mini market store in the lobby of the building where I live in Kuala Lumpur. The same Bangladeshi guy who has served me probably a hundred times, took my milk and put it in a new plastic bag, to which I quickly responded, “No plastic bag, thanks,” with the same eye-rolling false patience I’ve had since day two. And he looked at me and smiled for the first time in over a year and said, “Oh, sorry. Save the environment!” I was so dumbstruck I didn’t know what to say. It caught me completely by surprise. I tripped on my response, “Um yeah, save the environment.” I repeated it just to feel the glory of the words rolling off my tongue to understanding ears. “Save the environment. Yes, exactly. Thank you.” And I stood there beaming like a parent whose child finally used the potty.

Ho-ly-cow. I couldn’t believe it. He had paid attention to what I had said on scores of previous occasions and he even understood it. He hadn’t initiated actually saving the bag, but at least he got the concept instead of thinking it was just some annoying expat who prefers to carry his milk carton in his hands…how weird. I relayed the story as a minor triumph to Chuan. “Good Hubby,” was his stock response. (I think he thinks maybe I should choose bigger battles, but he knows at least to pat me on the back for trying.)

Then a couple days later, Chuan and I were on the elevator and the same Bangladeshi cashier stepped on, pressed his button and proceeded to look down at the floor as most foreign workers do, avoiding eye contact. I thought the intersection of our lives was fortuitous — I’ve never see him on the lift in my building. So I said to him with a big smile of acknowledgment, “Hey, save the environment.” His subcontinental bindi-ed face came alive and he responded, “Yes, yes, save the environment.” And he stepped off, our short social interaction ending at the garage level. Chuan looked at me with a face of “Good Hubby” and ‘why are you talking to the foreign workers?’ The beauty of the moment, however, was not lost on me.

That was a small but significant moment in my time here but undoubtedly the largest contribution I have made to Malaysia wasn’t even to Malaysia as much as the world community. It was my teaching the impoverished Myanmar refugees for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at the Zotung School here in Kuala Lumpur. I can’t say I was a great English teacher as I really have no qualifications. Though I use them all the time, I couldn’t have told you what a past participle was (but there’s one now). I bought a book and watched some YouTube videos about how to teach English. I felt terribly unprepared for this task and just stepped into the stinky rundown school mustering some courage and desire to help. Half the time I hated being there and walking on the broken sidewalks through the rat infested neighborhood on the way to class.

I looked like a school marm in my my drab olive shorts and plaid shirt with my briefcase that wasn’t full of toys, board games, and cookies. It had only one thing: my notebook with an outline of the day’s class which would include some reading, writing, storytelling, and grammar lesson. At first the kids seemed to reflect my stiffness. They were quiet and respectful but not joyful when I arrived each morning. But over time they warmed up sharing gossip (whoa, hold back on that kids!) with me like I was a peer. DimDim wore a little bow in her hair and would proudly show it to me turning her head to the side, “Look teacha!” Tam Wi Oo would get out the folders and put a water bottle on the desk for me. Hang Thung Lia would share a word he learned like ‘lovelorn’ revealing some of his tenderness to the class. Harry gave me a hug-like-he-meant-it when he got resettled to Oklahoma.

I gave my last class just before Christmas and I will likely never see Dim Dim, Tam Wi Oo, and Joel again. The other students I had over the year and a half of teaching moved on to other schools, were resettled to other countries, or died on the street here. But wherever they are, I think a small part of me lives in them and a bigger part of them lives in me. Maybe they will remember my words of the day like forgiveness, cooperation, and respect. Did I help them with their past tense verbs and prepositions? Sure. But more importantly I saw them as human beings in a place where they are illegal and treated like rats by the police. Of all things in Malaysia, I will miss them the most.

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A text I received from David the headmaster at the Zotung Refugee School. The school was shuttered January 1st for lack of funds. I worry that Joel has started working at the age of 12.

Summing up my life in Malaysia, it has been full of less than grand moments of triumph and defeat. That I figured out a small handful of restaurants in which to dine without going home with extra creatures in my bowels that would leave me glued to the toilet for days, is an unglamorous but noteworthy achievement of my time here. It’s one of many uninteresting details of life that I’ve tediously knocked out here by trial and error. The list is too long and dull to even enumerate. Knowing the ins and outs of a place is just what you do to survive. And I survived. But I didn’t thrive here. Thriving would be to savor the beauty of a place, to wake up in the morning ready to embrace the day and head out on a walk or a ride enchanted by what you might encounter. That faded shortly after I arrived and took the blinders off — the blinders that got me here in the first place.

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But if I look back at the reason I moved to Malaysia, I would say that I did achieve what I came here for. I found it in Chuan in spades. In my time here in Malaysia, countless people have asked me, “What brings you to KL?” I’ve fumbled for the answer saying anything from, “I wanted to get away from the US for a while,” (which always raises suspicions that I’m some sort of fugitive or as Chuan’s grandfather suggested, an operative for the CIA) to, “I came to Malaysia to find love.” That’s the truthful answer and one that makes no sense to anyone here. I quickly learned not to make that statement to any local here. It sounds like I came here recruiting for human trafficking victims. Their faces, upon utterance of that reason, give a look as if I had placed a turd on the table before them. A mission of love is the import of someone from a ‘developed nation’ — a privilege in a place that is more caught up in survival than such tender matters. And so I abandoned revealing the truth about my intent here just as I abandoned my enthusiasm for the place.  You can read my original blog posting about it by clicking here.

It was not an easy 18 months in Malaysia. I had my fun and my anguish but the scales were tipped a little too much to the latter and I admitted that I simply couldn’t make it work. In the end I did get what I came here for and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful I had the courage to risk so much to venture over here. And grateful that in so short a time I found what was missing in my life in America. I’m grateful for the handful of beautiful people I met along the way, as one always does even in the most dreary places. Do I have any regrets? Yeah. I shouldn’t have eaten those candlenuts. I should have tried the chocolate camel’s milk. And I shouldn’t have scratched that car. (But I’ll tell you more about that once I’m out of the country.)

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In a few days all the furniture will be sold or donated, the piano will sit unplayed in the store where I found it, the bed stripped of all its late night cuddles, the magic carpet rolled up, and the curtains on the magnificent view pulled tightly shut. The smell of Chuan’s baking will be scrubbed off the walls, the oven sent to Auntie Louise, the pots and pans to Auntie Eve. The air conditioner will be switched off and the hot, humid air will overtake the apartment. Chinese New Year fireworks will go unheard by my ears this year and Chuan’s nightmares will go un-comforted when he returns to his bunk bed in his mother’s apartment where he lived before we met. My plane bound for the States leaves just after the sun casts its first orange light between the Petronas Towers onto my former home.

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In my 30 hours of flying home I will go from being rich and exotic to being poor and ordinary, and my name ceases to be “Boss.” I will be just another white face in a mostly white crowd, but this time I won’t be going home empty-handed. Chuan has his B2 visa and his flight is booked for April.

Cross an ocean, start a new chapter.

Here’s the farewell video with a recap of the last month in Malaysia and a little slice of domestic life in KL…

Have a look at the Gallery of Goodbyes. Click on one and advance with the L or R arrows… 

 

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Arizona, here I come. Right back where I started from. Flying the ANA Dreamliner. Exciting!

Posted by: facetothewind | January 6, 2016

Last stop in Asia: Bali

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In the movie South Pacific, Bloody Mary sings about Bali Ha’i:

Bali Ha’i may call you…
Here am I your special island
Come to me, Come to me.

She was crooning of an imaginary place, a lonely island somewhere in a foggy ocean. It seems that there’s something lurking in the psyche of human beings that longs for a tropical island paradise. We want that primal experience of a waterfall flowing over us, the fragrant breath of a jungle to delight us while we wander in a sarong beneath the fruit trees plucking something sweet and ripe to gobble. That visage of paradise might have been possible in 1949 when South Pacific premiered at the Majestic Theater in New York…when the world population was just over 2 billion. Now at nearly 4 times the population, there’s trouble in paradise.

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The masses heard the call of Bloody Mary and they came by the millions — by cruise ship and Pan Am Clipper — to find that fantasy island somewhere in guess where? The South Pacific. Today the island of Bali, Indonesia, tucked 8 degrees south of the equator in the Indian Ocean, is a vastly overcrowded mutation of someone’s island paradise suffering the scourge of Eat, Pray, Love, the book and movie that put it on the map. It has a population of about 5 million (+ the teeming masses of tourists and expats) on a volcanic rock smaller than the U.S. state of Delaware. Once a serene place, there’s no way around the fact that Bali is now choked with traffic, buzzing with motorcycles, and up to its ankles in plastic waste. Surely there’s serene beauty to be found here, but it has been pushed further and further afield and has made the task of finding it something of a search for the holy grail.

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Perhaps I simply wasn’t paying attention, or I’m terribly dense, or I live in my own dream world of 1940s fantasy island musicals. (Very likely all of the above.) Bali turned out to be a bit of a rude surprise when we arrived on New Year’s Eve from Malaysia, another exotic, crowded, and polluted place. We immediately found ourselves stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic — something we thought we’d left behind in Kuala Lumpur. Hah! KL’s got nothing on Bali’s traffic.

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Our traffic meditation. Notice the speedometer.

This is all too familiar to me having lived now in Southeast Asia for a year and a half. Traffic, crowds, and garbage are sadly the norm wherever we wander. It’s damn near impossible to find that ideal place that no one has discovered, where you can listen to the birds without a leaf blower overpowering them, or paddle about in clear waters without bumping into a plastic bag and freaking yourself out that you just grabbed a jellyfish. Whew, it’s only a plastic bag! But crap, it’s a plastic bag.

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With the lightning speed of communication and in a time where everyone’s a travel writer, any desirable little corner of the world has already hit the coconut wireless long before you’ve even had a chance to check to see if there are any AirBnB listings for it. And wherever that little nook is, yes there are listings and a TripAdvisor rating for it. There’s even a listing in Karakalpakiya, Republic of Karakalpakstan. One. And maybe I should go and stay in their windowless room and be the first guest to review it. I would like to see the Savitsky art collection and somehow I think I wouldn’t get stuck in traffic there or be run off the sidewalk by a motorcycle.

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But back to Bali. We arrived with a bang. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve and what should we expect but crowds and explosions? And that’s what we got.

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Our friend Sten invited us to a party at a gay bed and breakfast. It was a sweet party of multi-generational and multi-ethnic men. And then we walked to the beach to see the pyrotechnic spectacle, me with my earplugs already jammed into my ears and a facemask at the ready. I was well aware that the terror alert was at its highest as Australia and the U.S. had intercepted terrorist chatter of a planned attack in Bali on New Year’s Eve. We were advised to stay out of crowded areas in Bali. Where, dear State Department, might that be?

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I might have been the only person on the beach who thought, wow, this is really kind of gross. Fireworks are a cheap thrill that pollute the hell out of an already polluted place. Do you think people cleaned up their burnt Roman candles and firework messes at the end of the night? Dream on, gurl. It was all there sitting at the tideline the next day waiting for turtles to choke on.

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I texted a friend that Bali really wasn’t the island paradise that it was purported to be. He wrote back that to enjoy Bali is to not go out — to stay in your villa. And that we did…

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The villa was a very lovely sprawling home built by a Dutch man and staffed by locals who were very kindly — a bit like a more sincere version of Thailand. So to do Bali right is to choose the right walled-off chunk of it and venture out at your own risk of being offended. By everything.

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We did venture out a bit into Legian and Seminyak and always came back to the villa panting from the heat and overwhelmed by the traffic and noise. The idea of leaving on a round-island road trip seemed horrifying if it took us an hour just to go a few blocks.

After a couple days of West Bali madness, we set off for the upland town of Ubud with my friend Yulia who fled the war in Ukraine to Bali with her 2 daughters in tow. I had rented a room out to her through AirBnB 2 years ago in Tucson.

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We became instant friends back then, sharing a common free-spirited, whacky-yet-elegant philosophy of living. We picked up our 24-hour friendship right where we left off and added Chuan to the mix. It was a threesome lovefest at first sight.

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Ubud is way more charming than Legian, Seminyak, and Kuta, but equally choked with traffic which just sits at a standstill belching fumes into the 2 blocks of road that comprise downtown Ubud. To get out of town, you have to either brave the rickety sidewalks until you’re past the jam and then take a taxi, or hop on a motorcycle and wiggle through stuck cars. Either option seemed to me crushing of what could be a sweet town full of alternative people and great restaurants. Perhaps they could take up auto meditation where you sit in a car for 45 minutes and give up your attachment to actually getting anywhere. Twice we bailed out of cars and just walked the remaining distance leaving the car stuck behind.

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Ubud is the town where Eat, Pray, Love took place and as such there’s a lot of eating, praying, and you know whating, going on. If you objected to the self absorption of the book and movie, let me tell you the town will work your nerves. Chuan found it endlessly amusing. For him it’s exotic and funny. I find nothing exotic about the new age but I do find it entertaining. It’s all too familiar being from California and Hawaii where many of my best friends are EPL’ers. New age people really know how to cook a good raw meal.

There were definitely some pretty charming spots to discover but we had to take it slow, not just because of the traffic getting in and out of Ubud, but the stifling heat and humidity. Take 3 steps and you’re drenched in sweat. This is the rainy season and it didn’t rain at all — it was sunny and hot every day. So we spent a lot of time in shady cafés taking no steps other than to order cool, refreshing drinks like kambucha and the famous “purple haze.”

I’d like to go back to Bali sometime and see more of what exists beyond the confines of the cities we stayed in. But after a year and a half in Southeast Asia, I now put a premium on quiet, unpopulated, unpolluted places. And so that quest will take me far from Asia, ironically full circle to where I started in a place that is lightly populated and not terribly polluted: Arizona.

(Thank you Sten, Chris, Mark, Joel, Yulia for the adventures and conversations!)

Here’s the video compilation of 5 days in Bali…

Here’s a little photo gallery of the Bali trip…

Next stop: Tucson.

Posted by: facetothewind | December 15, 2015

My Poor Liver

Our holiday in Langkawi Island, Malaysia…or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bottle.

If you’re in recovery for alcoholism, don’t read this.

While Christians all over the world are contemplating the true meaning of shopping, I find myself in this Muslim country considering the true meaning of defeat. Chuan and his 2 friends Hao Yen, Wai Tuck and I took a few days breather from the ugh factor of Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi Island in the Andaman Sea (just at the border of Thailand). It promised to be our year end tropical island vacation with beautiful beaches, swaying palms, gentle ocean breezes and fresh seafood. I imagined myself sitting on the beach with my book sipping a cheap cocktail and listening to the waves lapping at the shore. In the end it delivered only the cheap alcohol part.

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What do you do when your tropical beach holiday turns out to look like a flood plain in the kampung?

After our humbling sunset walk on the beach shared with a few thousand other Malaysians with their jet skis, helicopters, cars and screaming babies, I felt that ‘pan-Malaysian ugh’ coming on…the same ugh I left behind in KL…the same ugh of Borneo. It’s the ugh-ony of defeat — that I as the sole outpost of civility and decency amongst the teeming masses of ill-behaved (said in a most haughty tone), have overstayed myself in a place I should long ago have left. Everything about this country has worked my last nerve: from nearly being run over daily, to Muslims singing Christmas music in malls; from screaming kids tearing up a restaurant while their parents pay no mind to the endless loops through parking garages; from the people blowing their snot into the pool to dropping their trash from their balconies…this country has defeated me. But lucky for me, duty-free shopping in Langkawi came to my rescue in liquid form, like a bubbly, golden goddess arriving each afternoon with a distinct pop and fizz.

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Oh Langkawi.

You see, I discovered the night of the big Thanksgiving dinner with the expat Americans here that after 4 glasses of Moët & Chandon champagne (thank you Cynthia and Scott) and a couple big glasses of red wine, Malaysia is a hell of a lot more palatable. My ride home on the subway was so much easier as Kuala Lumpur as seen through drunken eyes takes on a surreal cast — all that’s normally objectionable is now seen through the detachment of an observer — as if watching it on YouTube. The pushing people on the subway are magically transformed into a freeform frottage of human bumper cars. The creepy “uncle” who sits next to you on the train platform and fondles himself through his pants seems somehow flattering. Really, you think I’m cute, do you? No one even looks at me in my own country. Thank you for noticing me. Thank you so much.

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How do you cope with the crushing crowds of Asia? A little sip’ll do ya.

Perhaps I am situationally alcoholic, which I think is a bit more tenable than being chronically so. All I have to do is change my situation — when I get on the plane, I’m on the wagon. I have a general commitment to live more joyfully which, as Allah is my witness, is damn hard here stone cold sober. But in the greater Malaysia, the Muslim based ‘sin tax’ placed on alcohol and chocolate (what is wrong with these people?) makes that foggy mind that is necessary to keep your joy on, too costly to indulge in. And so I mostly don’t indulge, or I under-indulge sitting in my apartment avoiding the fully-sober onslaught of Malaysia. That is until we arrived in Langkawi and hit the duty-free stores to find that a bottle of champagne is 1/2 to 1/4 the price of KL (but still twice the price of the US). Champagne, good beer, wine, cordials and spirits were all once again within my greedy grasp.

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When this is the only pedestrian path to my apartment, who is there to greet me and comfort me when I return home but my good friend Jim. Jim Beam.

In the end we found out there wasn’t much else to do in Langkawi except go duty-free shopping and uncorking the spoils back in the hotel room. And so Langkawi, while kind of disappointing in the tropical paradise and swaying palms department, packed a nice alcoholic punch that soothed our woes. Hao Yen and Wai Tuck packed two suitcases full of chocolate and helped us with our daily sipping. Chuan and I shared a bottle of prosecco every day and then followed that up with some sparkling hard cider or Jägermeister taken as a ‘traveler,’ sipping the 56-herb goodness indiscreetly from Chuan’s bag as the evening worn on (and our buzzes wore off).

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The entrance to the refugee school where I teach. Sometimes they rev the engines during class and the kids and I get to inhale a few cubic yards of vehicular emissions. If I had not been nearly run down by a car on the way to school, as is the routine, the sight of tires blocking the entrance alone is enough to drive me to drink. Looks like West Virginia, Malaysia.

The drinking was fairly contained in the first three days of the trip in the company of Chuan’s friends. But when they left a day before we did, the two of us left to our own devices…Hit. The. Sauce. It started with a post-nap German hefeweizen, then a little hard pear cider in the hotel room with a prosecco chaser. I took delight in shooting off the cork into an empty lot, adding my small biodegradable contribution of rubbish to the accumulating pile. After the prosecco it was the Jäggermeister shots and then we hit the road…almost literally. Oddly and perhaps as some sort of omen of sobriety we ran into Chuan’s boss at a restaurant. He was a painfully sexy Chinese man in his 40s wearing a singlet and I was terribly “in my cups” so I tried to keep cool. Don’t drool, don’t teeter and jerk myself from the edge of collapse, eyes above the waste, be dignified lest get my boyfriend fired.

After a little booze charged office chitchat we set off for some food and ended up at a place called Champor Champor which, in the state I was in, became known to me as Shampoo Shampoo, which in the state I was in seemed to be hilariously funny to me. And only me. “Shampoo Shampoo! Ruck ruck ruck quack quack quack,” with lots of slapping my thighs. I will now give you the long form text to describe the emoticon that I should place here: it would be the one of a little round face with the teeth gritting and the eyes rolled skyward in disgust at someone who has lost his title as outpost of decency.

Shampoo Shampoo is a place with fantastic curries, green ones, yellow ones, Indian ones, Thai ones, and the best one: the shrimpy one. Chuan read about it online and read that the proprietor is a feisty Indian woman who was to be avoided. I of course love a good strong woman on the verge of a meltdown. I like to nuzzle right up to them, put my fuzzy head in their bosom and get them to purr like kittens. It’s like sport for me to tame a feisty woman which usually has to begin with letting them know I’m gay.

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We ordered our curries and were astounded by the extraordinary yumminess of her cooking. She caught our wandering eyes and came to the table, all feist and fury but with a sparkle and a big toothy smile appearing from her 85% cacao skin. She’d told us in perfect English she’d been cooking for 22 years. We praised her braise and off she went. Afterward I stumbled into the kitchen and thanked her for her culinary genius declaring her with histrionic gesture, the “Grand Dame of spice!” Oh dear god, did I really say that? I did. I’m still flush with embarrassment.

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The nicest moment in Langkawi was at a place called Fat Cupid whose slogan is “Eat Play Love.” We ordered pineapple mint drinks and shared a mattress under a big shade tree. After a drink or two I stopped feeling like goofy grandpa. Perhaps this is the great beauty of inebriation — it breaks down barriers and lubricates social intercourse. Ew. Major General will now make yet another major generalization: it can be very hard to get to know Asians on a deeper level so a little assistance of the libation kind can be quite useful. Americans after a drink or two start dropping flattery and fluffy declarations of friendship and love in your lap…and then you never hear from them again. Here in Asia they skip the flattery and florid declarations…and then you never hear from them again.  :/

In all fairness, there are some nice things about Langkawi other than the cheap alcohol and chocolate. We did have a nice-ish afternoon at a beach playing with sea creatures. Well, it was me watching the Chinese play with the sea creatures in a slightly torturous way. I don’t really like to disturb animals in their natural habitats but these boys seemed to enjoy playing with them, pulling an octopus and a crab out of the water and toying with them until the octopus bit Hao Yen and drew blood. In the end they released the little animals unharmed. I got to see the tiny octopus change colors instantly from clear to black and then shoot a blast of ink as it bolted for cover.

I went off for a deep water swim, bobbing amid the plastic waste contemplating the end of the planet as I so often do in Asia. While I was out there I saw some eagles and great hornbills nesting in the trees. I wondered how they survived the tour boats that throw them chicken fat — not something they should be eating. But I was grateful for seeing them.

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Does anyone else get annoyed with all the selfie-making? These girls were at it for a whole hour just doing one wefie after the other. People have become so self-obsessed. They completely missed out on the beauty around them as they rack up photo after photo of themselves. What do they do with all those photos?

On another day at a tragically polluted beach strewn with bottles, fishing nets, and diapers, I noticed a colony of monkeys at the end. I had been sitting in the shade next to a group of girls (above) doing endless selfies and wefies. Is was comical if not pathetic. But it surely was not relaxing. Then an Arab couple sat down next to me blowing smoke in my direction and dropping cigarette butts in the sand. I contemplated how hard it has become anymore to get away from people. The empty part of the beach with the monkeys was starting to look better. Chuan had warned me about the vicious monkeys but BAH, I’ve been around monkeys-a-plenty. In Krabi they shake your hand and jump on your shoulders. In KL they keep a safe distance. But here I heard it was a different story and I was curious. So I walked over to a peaceful little monkey and talked a bit to him while filming him. His girlfriend came over and then all of a sudden they attacked me. I learned the meaning of “ape shit” which is exactly what they went on me hissing and chasing me with fangs exposed. Chuan was not pleased to see his boyfriend screaming and running from the monkeys. You’ll have to watch the video below. It’s one more example of how I’ve lost my title of outpost of dignity.

It’s time to go. It was time to go last April. I just want to get out of here without being bitten by a monkey, run over by a car, getting an antibiotic resistant bacteria, or getting snagged in the burgeoning dictatorship which are all plausible perils here in Malaysia.

In the end Chuan and I picked up as much trash as we could carry and with a stick I carried some diapers to a trash bin. I didn’t just carry them. I paraded them up the beach like a trophy. There’s nothing like the site of a tourist carrying diapers on a stick. Even the selfie girls would look away from themselves in shock. And I went up to the Arabs and handed their tiny daughter her father’s cigarette butts and said, “Your daddy lost these. Would you give them to him, please?” They all looked at me in silent disbelief. And the little girl took the butts to the rubbish bin.

Sadly the rubbish bin is very likely to get burned by the locals. You do what you can do, but in the end this is their country and there’s only so much an outsider can do. I once heard the Dalia Lama speak at UC Berkeley and someone in the crowd asked him what can we do about the poor planet. His answer was simple: “Look in your own backyard.” Starting February 1, that’s exactly where I will be, doing exactly that.

And as for the evil monkeys…I think they would be a good solution to ISIS. Air drop a nice big cage full of evil monkeys with a note: “From Malaysia with love.”

Here’s the video recap of Langkawi and a few domestic moments back in KL. Wai Tuck receives a very special birthday present, a visit to the American expat rock and roll Thanksgiving, a harmonica quartet at the local jazz club, Chuan reveals his real reason for loving horses and plays the world’s largest piano, and there’s a lovely cinematic moment at 17:30. Enjoy…

I have 45 days left…minus 5 in Bali for New Year’s.

Posted by: facetothewind | November 23, 2015

Hawaii house construction photos

Apparently my book, Homosteading at the Nineteenth Parallel, has become somewhat of a cult novel in Hawaii…unbeknownst to me. But I have news for the readers: it’s not a novel! It’s nonfiction. But in Puna, Hawaii, who needs fiction? From what I can tell from my royalty checks, either the publisher is pocketing my royalties or someone is passing the same greasy copy around the jungles and beaches. No matter, it’s nice to know that people are reading it.

Recently a reader requested to see pictures from the construction. So I thought I’d take a little stroll down the soggy memory lane and post some. Here they are. (Click on one to enlarge and use the arrow to advance.)

Posted by: facetothewind | November 11, 2015

Remembering Hang Thung Lia

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I received a text from the refugee school headmaster this morning that one of my students, Hang Thung Lia, was run over by a car and killed last night. It’s devastating news, though not surprising considering how dangerous their lives are here living in undocumented squalor, facing police harassment. The boy was only 14.

HTL was an on and off good student who would disappear from time to time. I was told he liked to drink and was a bit wild. I’ve been teaching him for a little over a year now and when I first had him in class, he was inattentive and listless. He had a chip on his shoulder and I frequently had to prod him to pay attention. But over time we made peace with each other, he came to life and flourished. In spite of his being the bad boy in the class, he was usually more advanced and excelled in pronunciation and writing.  A few weeks ago, he won the Word of the Day review contest and gift bag, remembering more of the words I’ve introduced to them than all the other students. Two weeks ago, he was able to pronounce “with” properly before everyone else and sat at the front of the class smug for having done it.

One day when all the students seemed so glum, I asked him what was going on and he said he was “lovelorn.” I was taken aback! That was a pretty advanced word for him to use. He revealed his crushes to me and I came to realize that his bad boy exterior was just compensation for what I believe was a sad romantic, always hatching some unrequited love affair. His use of the word lovelorn was an apt description of himself.

I’ll miss this skinny little guy, his hunchbacked rockstar style, and his sense of humor. He loved to say, “Everybody dance now!” And we would all laugh every time he repeated it.

I’m meeting with his parents tomorrow morning to offer them a donation for his burial. I don’t know how I’m going to keep my composure. Half the time I’m in class I want to burst into tears as they are so terribly vulnerable, just sitting there year after year awaiting resettlement by the UNHCR — something that seems like an impossible proposition now with all the world’s refugee crises.

I’m so sorry he never got a guitar and that he was run over like a rat on the brutal streets of Kuala Lumpur — a poor, undocumented refugee from Myanmar whose death will go unnoticed by any official measures. But I will remember him always.

No one is dancing now, dear child.

P O S T   S C R I P T

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Hang Thung Lia’s stepdad at the apartment visit today. His father is deceased. I didn’t realize that he had indeed gotten the guitar he always wanted. This made me smile. At least one of his dreams was realized in his short life.

Chuan and I drove down to the Indian flower market in Chinatown (very KL) late last night and got a gorgeous bouquet of flowers for the family. With the generous help of some other teachers and friends, we raised 1,700 ringgit for them to help cover the funeral expenses, and so I went to the house to deliver the money and some flowers today. I met my students at the school and we walked to HTL’s apartment through squalid alleys, Joel happy to be carrying the bouquet and the other kids plugging their noses. Some baby came out of a store to see the flowery entourage going by and came up to us and hit the flowers. WTF? We got to their apartment building and walked up the unlighted staircase to the apartment to find tons of people’s shoes outside the door. We slipped off our shoes and went in.

The mother was distraught and walked about the apartment wailing and reciting his name. The sounds of her tired voice mixed with babies making various baby noises. I greeted the father (who is actually the stepdad replacing his deceased biological father) and handed him the envelopes of money. He burst into tears and hugged me. They didn’t speak any English so David the school headmaster translated to him the amount that we brought which was considerably more than a month’s salary for most people in his situation. Thank you to those who donated!!

We sat quietly on the floor of their apartment as they had not a lick of furniture and no air conditioning, so it was hot and uncomfortable. But there was a lot of love in the room — seems like every Burmese person in the neighborhood filed in and out to sit with the family. After an hour of sitting on the floor with my students, I suggested we go out for a walk and get some food before going to the memorial service at their local church. When I stood up, the mother came over and said, “Thank you teacher, thank you,” and held onto me and then hugged and petted the flowers and kissed the picture of her son. It was terribly sad and I just held her for what seemed like a long time while she wept. With all eyes on us, I felt somehow shy about letting loose my feelings which were that I wanted to wander around the house screaming with her.

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Above is a note he wrote in a class exercise when I asked them to write an introduction of themselves and their wishes.

The backstory that I got in very broken English is that HTL went out late that fateful night with some friends and got robbed by a gang of boys. They put up a fight and more guys showed up to fight and HTL and his friends scattered and HTL took off across a busy road and was struck down by a car that never stopped. A taxi stopped to help and when the police and ambulance arrived, HTL was dead.

Anyway, we went for lunch and a breath of hot fresh air. We had noodles with fish balls. I had one without the fish balls. I tried to talk to Joel a bit, which you’ll see in the video. After lunch we went to the church for the memorial which was packed with community members and a line of wreaths at the front. My small bouquet was put on a chair with “Saya David” written on it…which I think means Teacher David. This is all in the video.

The immediate family of HTL didn’t come to the memorial. I asked a few times why and didn’t get a satisfying answer until I put the words “too painful” in the headmaster’s mouth. “Yes, yes too painful,” he said shaking his head. Ahah, OK. I paid special attention to Joel because I thought he would be hit the hardest and he came without anyone to the day’s proceedings. But he showed almost no signs of grief for having lost his best friend. He was smiling in a way that belied the heaviness of the circumstance, but what does a 13 year old know about death? He is perhaps protected by his undeveloped mind and this will all mean more to him years from now.

IMG_5407Watch the video…

And here are a few photos I indelicately shot today…

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His mother in their apartment.

Fellow teacher Cynthia sent me these photos. Below is Hang Thung Lia (in blue shirt) just last week in class at ISKL where Cynthia would invite them. He’s with his best buddy Joel…

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Joel and HTL were inseparable in class, always holding each other and playing together like kittens. And here is what he wrote on Saturday in Cynthia’s class. You can click to enlarge…

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Da pacem cordium. Give peace to every heart.

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Kinda sad when you go to Borneo and this is the best photograph you come home with. It’s not a bad photo, really. It’s actually a lovely photo, in my humble opinion. It’s calm, soothing, a little melancholy — a sort of diner still life with a very tiny nod to Edward Hopper.

But if you’re going to Borneo, you’d expect to come home with pictures of little purple starfishes gleaming under crystalline waters, orange orangutans jumping from tree to tree in their mountainous rain forest habitats. Well dear reader, I’m sorry to report it didn’t happen. After a failed attempt to get to Bali (due to volcanic eruptions closing the airports), we went home from the KL airport in a bit of a daze not knowing what to do with the time off and the airline credit. We had hoped that the next day we would be able to get to Bali but no, the flight was cancelled again that day as well.

So we quickly checked AirAsia’s flight availability and flipped through a Malaysian National Parks booklet I happened to have. We decided on a marine park as we really wanted to go swim with da fishies. So we chose Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia, checked the flights and at 10:30 am we left the house for a 2:30 pm flight hoping we could get on at the last minute.

In our haste we forgot to bring the underwater housing for the camera, an umbrella, and I even forgot to turn off the aircon. Dern it. In the taxi to the bus station, I texted a few friends to let them know where we were headed and they all warned me about kidnappings in Sabah, the Malaysian state where we were headed. I quickly did my research on my phone and in fact there are US State Department advisories warning tourists about potential kidnappers who take tourists at gunpoint and then demand ransom for their release. My friend said white people fetch higher prices. Like I don’t have enough worries in Malaysia with typhoid and crazy drivers and people throwing shit out their high floor windows — now add to that the possibility of being kidnapped and secreted away in a jungle while my parents try to come up with a million dollars. Whoopee, Sabah, here we come!

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Where the hell is Borneo? Well, it’s a giant island in the South China Sea that has 3 different countries sharing it: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.

The trip started with the SkyBus driver surfing the Internet on his phone the entire time. He was weaving over the lines and turning without signaling and signaling without turning. So I filmed him and sent it to SPAD (the federal authorities) and called the bus company who was quite upset with the news and phoned him immediately. This is the second time I’ve been on a bus in Malaysia with the driver paying no attention at all to the road. (You can see this in the video below.)  I get it that driving a bus isn’t that interesting but it could be worse. I’ve had dull and boring jobs myself. You don’t know boredom until you’ve had to type up loan papers for a bank. So count the lines on the road or the minutes ’til you’re home or what you want to do to do Emilia Clarke…anything. Devote yourself to customer service and the endless possibilities of ordering suitcases in the luggage hold. But look Mister Malaysian Bus Driver, you’re probably not hired for your genius or the fact that you’re a very important person, so just deal with your station in life and 45 minutes of boredom and do your friggin job. Your own personal life is probably not that important for you to be risking the lives of 50 people so you can check Facebook.

There’s something about Southeast Asia — about doing as little as possible and trying to cheat the system with no regard for the effect on others or the environment. There’s a prevailing attitude here of seeing what one can get away with, not how one could do better or improve things. I see it everywhere from people dropping rubbish off their 18th floor balcony into the pool to people running red lights. Do you see how one can go sour on life in Malaysia when there’s so little common sense, adherence to health and safety laws, and basic integrity that a simple bus ride or a meal cooked with unwashed hands turns into a fight for your life? No one knows this more than Dianna (a regular reader of this blog). It’s this mentality that keeps this and other nations in the region isolated and perpetually stuck. The cheating comes all the way from the top down. Next time I will take the train and hope that the driver of THAT isn’t texting…dream on. I know America has its share of irresponsible people and cheaters, but not to the extent that it exists here. If that bus was seen weaving like that in the US, there would be police helicopters tailing it and shooting out the tires while being broadcast live on CNN. Several lawsuits would follow.

ANYWAY I DIGRESS, sorry. We had a great ticket agent at the AirAsia desk (a special treat!) and we got booked on the flight with the credit we had from our failed Bali trip. With boarding passes in hand and an hour to spare, off we went to Starbucks to use the Internet to find a hotel, dine and dash for the plane. No time to research the trip or plan a great mountain excursion with orangutans and kidnappers which may be indistinguishable.

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Three hours later and one in-flight chicken in cream sauce, and we arrive in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah…BORNEO baby!

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We got a nice expensive 2 minute taxi ride for 25 ringgit to the hotel. Guess we didn’t know that we could have walked it…25 ringgit, really people?!

The hotel was quite nice but Agoda’s price was considerably higher than the price promotion offered at the hotel front desk. Chuan notices these things and said Agoda will refund if it’s not the cheapest rate — what a great travel companion my hubby is — and so I got on the laptop and phoned customer service and got a full refund and re-booked the hotel at a lower price. Off to town for dinner with the savings!

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This is downtown Kota Kinabalu also known as KK. Not very charming in my opinion. Full of unsightly shop lots and choked with traffic…unfortunately, that’s the look of most of Malaysia. But there’s some great seafood to be had. By the time we arrived in KK, Chuan had a list of top rated restaurants picked out and so we dove in. First meal was outdoors at an Italian place on the waterfront where I witnessed someone pointing a pocket laser beam at a flight leaving the airport nearby (a federal offense in America). Do they do that to impress a girl? Did they think about the devastating consequences of blinding a pilot?

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This is the night fish market downtown. Entering the market, Chuan and I saw a whole family of rats scurrying through the parking lot on their way home from the market with their takeaway dinner. What can I say about rats and Malaysia that I haven’t already said? Just make sure you wash everything before you put it in your mouth. With all the above I found my spirit slowly sinking into the South China Sea. I feel bad for Chuan when this happens because he always keeps on the sunny side of life and either doesn’t notice all the offenses I do or he just isn’t weighed down by them. Lucky for me, he isn’t pulled down by my gravitas. And so the trip went on with him leading the way.

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Above is a locally caught lobster (not ours) which is a spectacular creature — too spectacular to kill for a meal. In general I won’t eat cute, cuddly, or beautiful animals. And I really abhor looking into a tank and picking out the animal to be killed for my meal. Yep, I’m a weak person. I just prefer that be done by someone else and hopefully they won’t choose the fish floating belly up.

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We did eat a LOT of shrimp on this trip. Above is the char kway teow (my favorite) at a restaurant on Manukan Island. Chuan was delighted how much seafood he could eat for so cheap compared to Kuala Lumpur’s prices. So we ate a lot of seafood including steamed fish with ginger sauce and crabs with me crying UNCLE one night and insisting we give the ocean a break and eat vegetarian…with a side of shrimp.

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We spent one really lovely evening watching a sort of sunset at the Shangri-La Resort. We each had a pricey piña colada which seemed to contain no alcohol — typical of bars here. This time even Chuan complained, to which the staff said, “Hee hee hee. Sorry,” the stock response for all complaints. Here’s what happens inside the Asian brain when you lodge any complaint: First there’s a smile mechanism that’s immediately triggered to defuse any tension. If you press the issue, then there’s a big yellow internal button that gets depressed. It’s called the “Save Face” button. Once that button is depressed, you will no longer be seen. You become completely invisible and inaudible. You’re saying, “I’m not happy with this cocktail!” and what the Asian person is hearing is: huminuh huminuh huminuh. If you don’t immediately apologize profusely for your complaint, the the levers of inaction will be pulled. That causes an instant neuromuscular retardant to be released into the Asian’s bloodstream that disables any remedial action. It has essentially the opposite effect of adrenaline. We can only feel sorry for the Asian person at this point because they are completely incapacitated and useful to no one.

Chuan declared that from now on we’re ordering the half-priced “mocktail” version and producing a small bottle of rum from our backpack to juice it up. As long as we’re in a country of rule breaking we might as well…when in Rome, do as the Romans. Don’t attempt this, ever, in the US (but at least in the US, you can get a good strong and cheap drink so you don’t need to). Here you order a glass of wine for the US equivalent of $8 + 6% tax and 10% service charge which brings it to around $10 and it’s really a half glass. So in effect, a full glass of wine is $20. In the US, you’d get 4 full glasses for that price. Malaysia taxes the hell out of alcohol, literally. It’s an artifact of living in a Muslim country. It’s called a “sin tax.” And so I’m certain that establishments simply add water to their booze bottles. Sigh.

But we didn’t come here to drink. We came here…wait…why did we come here? Oh yeah, snorkeling!

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We took a couple day trips by boat to some of the surrounding islands. It’s only about 7-10 minutes by speedboat to any number of small islands in the national marine park where you can hop off and immerse yourself in the underwater world of colorful fishes.

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Click to enlarge panorama of Manukan Island. It’s monsoon season so the skies were stormy and it rained heavily every afternoon.

Once you get away from the groups of mainland Chinese tour groups who cling to the shore, even eating in restaurants in their lifejackets, it’s a great and fascinating adventure beneath the surface. We quietly slipped outside the barriers (lifeguards are too busy texting to notice) and swam the entire circumference of Mamutik Island. There, away from the frantic crowds screaming and scaring away the fish, we saw fantastic corals, unpuffed pufferfishes, big lipped triggerfish, turquoise and pink parrotfish, and feisty clown fish guarding their anemones.

We hold hands while snorkeling, partly as a form of affection but more to just keep track of each other without having to always be looking. And with a squeeze of the hand we could point out something like the pipefish lurking at the surface or the black tipped shark that came by to see what we were up to. This sighting was particularly exciting for me because in all the years of snorkeling, I’ve never seen a shark. Its visit was quite peaceful but even more surprising that Chuan didn’t scream into his snorkel. I tried to mouth the words, “Stay calm. Don’t panic,” through my snorkel which sounded something like “mmmay mmmalm mmont manit.” He was very calm and didn’t crush my fingers. He told me later he’d seen sharks before. Meh. Big, strong, fearless me, telling him not to panic, huh?

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What’s up with the babies in Malaysia? There’s clearly a baby boom going on (in a place that doesn’t need one). You’re never far from screaming kids wreaking havoc on a place. And parents here have no hesitation bringing their kids to a place where they clearly don’t belong, like late at night at a cocktail bar. Really? We had many a meal skewered with wailing babies having meltdowns at or near the table, usually followed by the silverware banging on the table while parents are texting. (I swear aliens could visit Asia and pluck granny from the table and give her the anal probe and no one would notice because they’re all face down in their devices.)

One baby-zilla in KK we witnessed twice on a rampage walking on the furniture, ripping leaves off potted plants and brochures off the rack in the hotel lobby, and then hitting his mother while she just put up with it silently. And then on the airplane home, for 2 hours babies were kicking my chair. There were 3 kids and a helpless mother in 3 seats with the father seated somewhere else. An accident? I don’t think so. AirAsia is like the flying “kampung” (village).

At first I tried to imagine I was getting a lower back massage in one of those fancy high-tech massage chairs you see in airports and malls. Mmm. Nice and relaxing, yeah work the lumbar please. Great. When it causes my glasses to unseat themselves from my face I figure it’s gone far enough. Then the tray table slamming started. Up down. Up down. Up down and then followed by some more jabs at my tailbone. At one point I reached behind and grabbed the child by the ankle and threw it off the back of my chair. That would be enough to stop most kids in their tracks and file a lawsuit for inappropriate touching. But not in Malaysia. Pushing, shoving and grabbing is just par for the course.

Four more times I grabbed and pushed her feet off my seat. At one point I stood up and talked to the mother and asked her to please control her children. It continued. Then I asked again. Each time it was “Sorry. Sorry.” But no action. Finally I jumped up towered over the child who had her seat belt buckle all the way in her mouth, “STOP IT NOW! YOU STOP! STOP IT.” I was having a bonafide, undignified, characteristically Caucasian, hissy fit. I noticed Chuan looking at me from 3 rows back nodding his head like, “Yeah Hubby, give it to them.” He knew what was going on. It was a clash of cultures that would result in nothing. It was gay vs breeder. Caucasian vs Asian. Atheist vs Muslim. West vs East which = stand up and fight for your rights vs do nothing and save face. And then before there was going to be a quadruple homicide at 33,000 feet I asked to be reseated and the flight attendant obliged thereby avoiding an international incident and a sudden water landing.

Here’s the short video of the trip. You can see the Chinese mainlanders doing a wefie at the beach and listen to the babies screaming at various locales…

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This basically says, “Caucasian Street.” Mat Salleh comes from the old days of British occupation of the Malay Kingdom when locals saw what they called Mad Sailors — drunk no doubt — and their term for drunk sailors was applied to all white folk.

In the end I didn’t get kidnapped so I guess the trip to Borneo was a success though it wasn’t exactly the Balinese paradise we had planned on. We will try Bali again in the coming months. We weren’t prepared on this last minute trip to do Mt. Kinabalu and I didn’t want to go chasing orangutans on the east side of Sabah where it’s kidnapping territory. So in a way we really didn’t get to see the best of Borneo. Maybe when I’m rich enough to have armed security detail I can go. Honestly, I’d rather see orangutans on TV than watching them being fed bananas in a sad rescue camp after losing their habitat to Indonesian deforestation. That’s just depressing. I wanna see happy simians in their native environments and that’s just not so easy in this world of dwindling forests.

I have only 80 days left in Southeast Asia, but who’s counting? ME. I AM! I am counting the days ’til I am on the ANA 787 Dreamliner bound for fresh air and emissions standards and good pizza and goat cheese and pecorino Romano and kalamata olive spread and cheap wine and hefeweizen beer and law and order and blue skies and bike lanes and crosswalks and sidewalks and noise ordinances and laws restricting fireworks and only one new year per year and museums and art openings and street musicians and thrift stores and farmer’s markets and recycling and composting and food labels. I’d rather face being gunned down on a sidewalk than not having a sidewalk to walk on or air that I can breathe.

What a difference a year and half has made.

Next stop: Langkawi in the Andaman Sea where alcohol doesn’t have the sin tax applied…not that cheap alcohol is the only draw, though it may very well be.

Posted by: facetothewind | November 3, 2015

Bali No Go

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The moment we walked out the apartment door, my suitcase broke and cut my leg. Chuan said this was a sign that we shouldn’t go — a bad omen. Nah, I thought, it’s just a scratch and I’ll deal with the luggage.

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Then on the train to the airport, the emergency alert came in that the Bali airport was closed completely due to the volcano erupting.

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So we’re back home now. We are rebooked for tomorrow’s flight, but there’s no telling if the volcano will allow us to land. Sometimes travel delights you and sometimes it kicks your butt.

Today it kicked our butts.

Posted by: facetothewind | October 30, 2015

Escape from KL: Taking a Pulmonary Holiday

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This is what the air quality in KL has been like since I returned from Europe. I have not seen the sun nor the moon nor anything colorful since I returned.

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My already limited life turned into house arrest as it became not just unpleasant to go outside but downright dangerous.

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Any foray into the outdoors required wearing masks. Here is Chuan sporting the duck billed one.

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Then this headline appeared in the paper. Hmm, a typhoid outbreak. What more charming news of life in Malaysia could there possibly be? I wonder if my own contraction of it was considered in the statistics?

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Then there was this headline article stating that 72% of university students in Malaysia would prefer to finish their degree abroad and gain permanent resident status. With all the above, I simply can’t imagine why the Malaysian dream has become to get the hell out. It certainly has become mine. And so I started checking airfares and to my delight I saw midweek specials on ScareAsia to Krabi, Thailand, for only $30 USD. And I found a highly regarded hotel there on the beach was having a last minute sale (70% off) on rooms. So I took advantage of the 1 hour flights out of the smoke and took off for Thailand.

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This is the Golden Beach Resort where I stayed for only $32 a night…right on the beach. The smoke was gone! It was like going from a black and white movie to color…perhaps like that scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy wakes up in the Land of Oz and all is colorful after a life spent in dreary Kansas.

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I spent early mornings swimming in the Andaman Sea, doing yoga, playing clarinet and reading. Afternoon I would take off on sunset walks with a piña colada in one hand, my camera in the other.

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After dark, I would get a $9 massage. Thailand really delivers when it comes to relaxing.

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This is my $3 lunch. I ate all my meals alone, hardly talking to anyone for 4 days. Traveling alone can be wonderful. It’s a chance to just detach from anyone and everything worrisome. Here’s the video of the trip + some fun little goodies from KL and Bukit Tinggi before heading to Thailand. Don’t miss the fake-o-France, the piano/harmonica duets, and the invasion of the monkeys…

Magically when I returned from Thailand, the smoke had cleared and once again we could see to the horizon. The intentional fires in Sumatra are still burning to clear land for farming but the wind right now is blowing the other direction. So we have at least a short reprieve.

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And here’s a video collage of some of my photography from recent days…

Next stop: Bali.

Posted by: facetothewind | October 17, 2015

Guest poetry

I sublet my apartment to a Canadian man while I was on my round-the-world trip. Here’s a poem he wrote about his time here and his daily walks through Kuala Lumpur.

Kuala Lumpur smog haze air pollution

Poem by Benjamin Fortier • photo by David Gilmore

From all shade they greet,
No more places to hide,
I break to the heat.

To kids holding hands,
Digging deep, scratching a surface,
Scared to bend.

Everything to learn,
Everything to lose,
For so long I yearn.

A Woman sells a mask,
A man carves a flower,
Still blind to find a task.

Stepped in a hole,
Head unfortunately afloat,
The body takes the blow,
And lives the flow.

Colored tricycles speaking tongues,
Dangerously drawn to life,
Only a physical mute,
For more layers to reach their spirits.

Often an old man smiling of contempt shares a table,
Helping expose my fable.

Stay unpolished Jewel,
Could I never tame.

David

I recently accused a dear friend of being deeply narcissistic. And she is, with her constant need for validation, ruthless drive to satisfy her needs and control her space. But as they say, ‘it takes one to know one.’ With that said, I give you the ultimate narcissistic interview  — an interview with myself, by myself, about myself. Why, you ask? Because frankly, I have a lot of free time, so why not? Besides, no one has ever asked to interview me about myself and isn’t that what a flaming narcissist desires most? If you’re a person who can sit patiently at a bus stop and listen with courteous attention to a homeless person going on and on about himself, then you’ll probably enjoy this. If you want to throttle them for the unfiltered, boundaryless blather, then you may want to just look at the pictures and get back to Instagram.

DG: So, David, what’s it like being you?

DG: Starting out big, are we? Well, I have a good life, you know. At least it looks good on paper. I am no one’s fool and I have a lot of freedom. I travel a lot and have lots of fun little adventures.

DG: Then why are you cranky so much of the time?

DG: Because I am a restless idealist. No sooner do I arrive in an exotic locale then I’m finding fault with it. It’s a family gene thing. I come from a long line of malcontents.

DG: Speaking of exotic locales, why are you living in Malaysia of all places?

DG: Good question. Though I have had it up to here (my hand is 6″ above my head) with Asia, I like Asians. And Malaysia being an Asian country is chock full of guess what? Yes, Asians.

DG: But why Malaysia of all Asian countries? If it weren’t for the disappearance of Malaysia Air flight 370, hardly anyone in the West would have even heard of Malaysia.

DG: True. I chose Malaysia because Malaysians speak English and though I would love to be able to just gab away in Thai or Bahasa Melayu, I’m a goof with foreign language. Call me weird but I’m one of those people who likes to actually have a conversation face to face and that requires a pesky common language.

DG: OK, that explains Malaysia, but what’s the deal with Asians? You are what they call a ‘rice queen’ aren’t you?

DG: Yep, I guess I am indeed a rice queen. But why am I attracted to Asians? Because they’re so dern cute.

DG: Isn’t that a bit shallow and objectifying?

DG: If you say so, but didn’t you pick your partner because he or she was attractive to you? Or did you go for the disgusting slob who charmed you off your feet? Why is it objectifying only if it’s with Asians? Don’t people fetishize blonds with abandon?

If I had a multi-ethnic lineup of guys that I thought were adorable, I’d have them arrange themselves from shortest to tallest. Then I’d first go for the little ones which tends to be Asians. Secondly, I’d go for the dark skinned, black hair and brown eyed ones…which also tends to be Asians but not just. Caterpillar eyebrows and unibrows get extra points. I personally don’t get the attraction to blonds. But OK, to each his own. A big, hulking, blond dude with hairy chest is so far off my radar that I might actually not even see him. There would be some sort of white blurry blob. My vision would come back into focus on the smooth little guys at the dark end of the spectrum.

DG: Alright. But what’s so cute about little dark guys?

DG: Little is the key and Asians cornered the market on little. Well, not all Asians are little — the “subcontinental Asians” aren’t so small but the Chinese and Malays here are…or at least they start out small and then they eat a little too much onde onde and disappear off my radar. But the Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, and Burmese are all pretty tiny. But it’s the Malaysians who tend to have the best English skills. And the Chinese-Malaysians are the least religiously encumbered.

DG: Why is small so important to you?

DG: Gosh, that’s such a personal question, but I’m so glad you asked. It comes from a childhood complex about being the skinniest person in school who kids liked to pick on for being skinny. I was called ‘Twiggy,’ ‘Beanpole,’ and ‘The Nose Knows’ (I guess I was a bit of a know-it-all with a big schnoz). As a result, I developed some compassion for those smaller than me, but moreover, I swore that no one would ever kick sand in my face again and so I choose people smaller than me to be with…not that I kick sand in my sweet boyfriend’s face. We don’t have any sand in a high rise condo and even if we did…

DG: Got it. So you’re running around choosing people based on a childhood wound?

DG: Yeah, go ahead and put a negative spin on it. But yes. I am grossed out by partners who are bigger than me. And being grossed out is no way to start a relationship.

DG: But this “fetish” if I may…

DG: No, you may not.

DG: OK, I’ll rephrase that…this preference you have for little guys — is that enough of a basis for a relationship?

DG: Jesus, Mary, and Mohammed…do you think the only criterion I have for a man is someone small? No, I don’t go out the hotel door with a yard stick and the first person I find who’s small is my partner. Of course I want common interests and actually a long list of what I desire in a partner. Like, for example: being a lover of classical music, being earnest, honest, health conscious, elegant, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Wait a minute.

DG: That is quite a list. Sounds like you were a Boy Scout.

DG: Yeah, I made it to 2nd Class — a fitting designation for a gay boy in the late 70s. Anyway, I did find that list in my Chinese boyfriend. (He was a Scout, too.)

DG: But you complain about the Chinese all the time, don’t you?

DG: Yeah, but I complain about the MAINLAND Chinese, not the Malaysian-Chinese. Big difference. The difference isn’t quite night and day, they do have some of the industrial instincts of mainlanders, but Malaysian-Chinese are much softer and quieter. And they don’t wear clashing colors and patterns like mainlanders do. Malaysia is still a developing nation, and as such the people as a whole haven’t yet lost their humility but they’re working on it.

DG: You’re kind of an opinionated guy, aren’t you?

DG: Gee, thanks for noticing! Yes. I would say I’m also a curious person. But I want to say a little something more about my attractions to Asians before we leave this topic. I could have found other places with diminutive people but I came to Asia because of what Re-evalutation Co-Counseling calls a ‘frozen need.’ You see, when I was a teenager I was terribly in love with a Samoan boy.

DG: You mean like this?

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DG: No, more like this:

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I still get weak in the knees when I see this look. The Samoan boy in my high school wouldn’t have anything to do with me. I was hiding in the closet, fantasizing about him and unknowingly packing away my future frozen needs into a time capsule to be opened in Asia 30 years later.

DG: OK, so we have established a type.

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Not Sebastian. But close.

DG: Yeah, I think we all have our types. Some of us are more secretive about it and some less so. Maybe you like guys with big beards, or albinos, or you like a woman with long legs or brunettes with green eyes. Some of us act on it and some don’t. Look, my ex Sebastian was about as far from that Samoan look as anyone could be, right? He was white as a milk bottle. But he was also little and that made up for my blind spot for whiteness. He was also incredibly smart, charming, and talented. And it all added up to a package that I fell in love with.

DG: So small trumps brown?

DG: Erm. Well, I don’t know if I could answer that. I think this conversation is getting too looksist anyway, so let’s move on.

DG: Right. Let’s talk about the age thing, then.

DG: I knew that was coming. Yeah, so you want to know why my boyfriends have all been younger than me, don’t you?

DG: Sure.

DG: Well, they don’t have to be. Young people cheer me up. They take more risks, they tend to be more adventurous and open minded. So we have more in common. And they tend to smile more and honestly, most people my age don’t smile much. Life kinda wears most people down and they become incredibly dull and set in their ways. But I don’t rule out older people for friends or lovers. In fact, I find myself often attracted to old black men.

DG: What??!!

DG: Don’t you “what?!” me — old black men are perfectly worthy of one’s attractions. When I was growing up in rural Southwest Florida, black people were clearly off limits to me as a white person. They rode different buses and lived in a segregated part of town. But if every time you hear a train whistle and someone covers your eyes, the one day they aren’t there to cover your eyes, aren’t you gonna look and see what’s making that noise? So black men at any age are attractive in my eyes.

DG: Wait, we’re getting far off the Silk Road here, now you’re telling me that the entire continent of Africa is not safe from you. Why didn’t you just stay in America, move to Philly or something and find an old black boyfriend?

DG: Well, aren’t you objectifying! The reason is because I’m a restless person and I wanted to get out of the US for other reasons like guns and greed, for example. And I have had a number of black boyfriends over the years and for whatever reason they didn’t work out. But let’s move on, OK? There are more interesting topics to cover than my romantic attractions.

DG: OK, well tell me about your current boyfriend. What do you like about him?

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Chuan perfecting his chocolate cake.

DG: Let me tell you about our Sunday. We slept in and then made French toast and banana shakes together. He played some Bach on the piano. Then we went to the park and had a little picnic. We came home and he went grocery shopping while I napped. I woke up and he was making me a grass-fed beef stew and a chocolate cake from scratch. He left all this behind (and a pineapple) to comfort me while he had dinner with his mother because he knows I don’t like being alone on Sunday night. What’s not to love about THAT?

DG: Sounds wonderful but it sounds kind of like he’s your houseboy.

DG: I’m gonna hit you. He doesn’t get paid and he doesn’t clean. He’s actually quite messy. I clean the house, do his laundry, and I shop and cook for HIM most of the time. The fact that he likes to play classical music and work on his baking skills are certainly appealing. But more importantly, he has a golden and tender heart and he cares for me like I’m family. He fits all my criteria of adorable AND he’s gentle, loving, earnest, and kind. And all the Boy Scouts superlatives.

DG: Got it. So, when are you getting married?

DG: That’s a weekly topic of discussion around the house, actually. We can’t get married in Malaysia. It is a Muslim country. Here our love is flat out illegal. We could only marry in a morally depraved country like America and he needs to see the country first and then decide for himself if it’s a place he can live. I don’t want him to come on a fiancé visa as it will be too much pressure. He will come and visit and see and then we’ll talk about making it more permanent after he has had a chance to digest his experience of the US, and more importantly, Tucson.

DG: What do you predict will happen?

DG: Gosh. I give it a remote chance of working out. It’s not easy to leave your home country, even when it’s a hot mess like Malaysia. His mother is here and we all know how Chinese boys are expected to dote on their mothers ’til their dying day. I suspect he will not like the Arizona desert — I think he’ll find it too dry and too extreme with all the biting plants, reptilian creatures, and harsh overhead lighting. He recently asked me, “Hubby is Tucson a fashion town?” My heart sank to tell him that dressing up in Tucson is a clean t-shirt. He won’t like the gun-toting nutbags and white trash of America. Asia may be annoying but at least you don’t get your head shot off in school. And Malaysians don’t make false promises and professions of love like Americans do routinely.

I think he will enjoy the cultural benefits and the economic possibilities for his life there. So it will be a mixed experience. Tucson isn’t magical — it’s a good solid place but not one most people dream about moving to. He’d rather we lived in New York. I also want to take him to Europe (he’s never been to the West at all) to see how he likes that, because honestly, I would rather live in Europe myself than in America. Until the guns and healthcare messes are sorted, which is probably going to be never, I’d rather live outside the US. I’m just not feeling the love for Asia now.

DG: A year and a half ago you were so excited about moving to Malaysia. Maybe you’re just not happy anywhere.

DG: Well, considering that there’s not much more in Kuala Lumpur than shopping malls and it’s always miserably hot and humid, and now we can’t even breath the air because of the smog. So I’d say yes, I have gone sour on Southeast Asia. I’d feel that way about Paris if I lived there. Remember, I’m a restless person. Three months anywhere is enough!

DG: What about somewhere else in Asia?

DG: We will be in Bali in a couple weeks…who knows?

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You thought WE were age divergent? Look at this couple. Been together for years. Malay and Australian. Come on, it’s adorable. Read on…

DG: Now, your boyfriend is 23 years younger than you…

DG: Back to the age thing, huh? Yes, he is. After Sebastian (who was 21 years my junior) I swore I would find someone my own age and now I am with someone even younger than Sebby. Oh well! Westerners are pretty obsessed with the age issue. It’s really a non-issue in Asia. Conversely, maturity is considered a plus here. In America, at age 51, I’m completely and utterly invisible in the gay community. Here, well, let’s just say it’s different. But when I first arrived in KL, I started dating someone who was only 4 years younger. I was excited about the possibility of pleasing all you ageists back home, but he wasn’t so much fun and not very adventurous. I noticed I didn’t laugh much with him.

Chuan, on the other hand, bounces in the door and jumps around like a kid with boundless enthusiasm for even the smallest things: “Hubby let’s go to the movies tonight and sit in the beanbag chairs!” And we did. It is probably the greatest benefit of being around young people — they tend to be more open minded and playful. We laugh a lot together.

DG: But your lives don’t quite line up do they? You’re going to ‘time out’ a little sooner than your boyfriend will, right?

DG: Hah! That’s the prevailing assumption, but at age 51, I am more likely to be staying up ’til 2 am and climbing the 25 flights of stairs to the apartment than my 28 year old boyfriend. Here’s the deal: that oh-so-American proscription of age-divergent relationships only makes a shred of sense when it comes to child rearing and since we have no plans to ruin our lives with children, our relationship is really only about love and support. And adventure. And fun. Yes, fun. That’s where the term ‘gay’ came from. Remember, gay used to mean happy before it was applied to a sexuality? The name implied that we were carefree because we had double incomes and no mouths to feed or diapers to change. How things have changed.

But anyway, I fully intend to be traveling the world and goofing off with my younger Chinese boyfriend/husband ’til I’m 85. I recently heard the term for these age divergent East/West relationships: ‘Walking stick and chopstick.’

DG: So you think it’s a long shot for you with your Malaysian-Chinese boyfriend settling in America.

DG: The word ‘settling’ shouldn’t ever be used in any description of my life, but he’s such an extraordinary young man that how could I NOT give it an honest try. And even if it doesn’t work out long-term, we will have some great adventures along the way (we already have). And isn’t that what this gift of life is all about?

DG: For you, clearly, life is about adventure and play. What about hard work and making a difference and changing the world?

DG: Geez, how soon you forget. My life is full of play now but it hasn’t always been. I used to teach in 2 different schools in San Francisco, ran my own design firm, started a gay advocacy non-profit and took it about as far as it could go into non-profitdom. We did win the Edward R. Murrow award, after all. And I volunteer teaching English to Burmese refugees for the UN. But as far as corporate life, well someone else has to make the widgets, not me. And as far as making a difference…everything one does, every interaction we have with others makes a difference. I’ve given up the ideal that I’m going to profoundly influence the direction of humanity. Thank god!

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DG: So how do you manage to pull off this lifestyle of traveling and playing all the time on a shoestring?

DG: There are a few things that I have done that have allowed me to live freely: one is with a little help from my parents, I bought 3 cheap houses successively in Arizona, fixed them up, sold them, or rented them out. I learned how to do the fixing myself and then I built a house from scratch and rented it out. In addition I have a career as a computer graphic artist, web designer, filmmaker, and narrator — stuff that I can do from wherever I am perched as long as I have the Internet. It just means that sometimes I have to stay up till 2 am or get up at 5 am to meet my clients on line in their time zones. (Nothing that a little afternoon nap can’t remedy.) And I have generous friends who have helped out with some fun bitty bits along the way.

But one other very important thing — and this is a hard one for many Americans — is that I’ve not gotten caught in the trap of material acquisitions. I actually have more stuff than I would like, but I don’t own a car and I don’t have a fetish for shopping. When I do feel like shopping, I go to the thrift store so that the damages are minimal. But when I was younger I got caught in the consumer debt trap that binds so many Americans. When I finally untangled myself from it, I swore I’d never be in that mess again. I spend my money on experiences that will bring me joy and memories for a lifetime rather than on material items that give me a momentary rush of pleasure.

DG: Well, aren’t you just so perfect! You’re free and easy and happy.

DG: Hardly. The reality of my life is that I was born melancholy. I came out of my mother’s womb and sighed when they spanked me. My first words were “Oh, how poignant.” Being restless has actually saved my life. I could easily stay at home and be miserable and drink too much, listen to sad music, and watch sad movies…which is sort of my natural inclination. And so I force myself to get out and run, run, run. If I’m at home alone for long periods, I tend to watch sinking ship videos ad nauseum. I’m fascinated with the demise of people’s dreams and ideals — zeppelins and ocean liners and mansions that offered extreme luxury to the privileged few…until something went really wrong.

DG: Kind of sounds like your book.

DG: Yes, in fact, my book Homosteading at the Nineteenth Parallel is all about that…my fantasy of a tropical island dream house gone wrong. Read it. It’s always fun to watch someone else’s dream go down the drain. And it will only cost you a few dollars instead of your whole life’s savings doing it yourself.

DG: So what are your pet peeves?

DG: Gawd. How long do we have?

IMG_2916

DG: Never mind. Let’s skip that one. Who are your heroes?

DG: Hmmm. Right off the top of my head, Elizabeth Sparks in Tucson. Yeah, Liz. She’s an extraordinarily powerful person who co-manages the Tucson Village Farm. What I really like about her is that she has the ability to be really light and hilariously funny in the face of challenging circumstance. And yet she can kick your ass from here to eternity if she needs to. But she mostly insists instead on you being the best you possibly can — she sees to it that you only show up in a great light. I’ve seen her in the unenviable position of schmoozing Monsanto executives while running an organic farm. I wouldn’t trade lives with her, but being around her is an inspiring ride of engagement with all people.

I would also say Mark Allison from Pai, Thailand. He’s a wonderfully wise and yet easy-going guy with a big heart. He is remarkably grounded in any situation. He co-manages the restaurant in Thailand and his own counseling and massage practices. He is sort of the de-facto mayor of Pai as everyone knows him and loves him.

And finally I would say Chuan is my hero — I know it’s trite to name your partner. But hey, that’s the mark of a good relationship, isn’t it? What is heroic about Chuan is the way he cares for people like his aging grandparents and his mother. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to actually be Chuan, as he thinks with his heart, not his head. The world seems to want to always shut down those with open hearts but it doesn’t happen to him. He needs almost no propping up, just a little hug now and then. His seemingly endless supply of love and generosity doesn’t work against him because he’s not doing things for others in order to get something back. He genuinely cares for people and I’m honored to be one of the ones he cares for.

DG: So maybe I should ask what’s next for you?

DG: Getting out of Asia alive and well and with my boyfriend in tow. A year and a half ago my goal was to get out of America. Then I was escaping alone on an adventure to find a companion. Now I’m going back and hopefully not alone. Seems like I did get what I came here for.

You know, it’s not easy being an idealist with endless free time and some budget to play with but no clear direction. I can hear your groans of false pity just reading that! I suffered for years in corporate cubicles doing crap work that I hated and was stuck with a very unloving boyfriend in San Francisco. I worked my ass off doing this and that here and there and then running a starving non profit. For a brief period I had the creative team I wanted. But that ended in 2004. After that I built a house and wrote a book. Fell in love and then grieved its loss. And then I lost my direction. I had one thing left to achieve in life: lasting true love.

For me now having found that, I don’t really know what’s next. It’s the dilemma of self-styled people who choose to swim upstream — or choose a different path than the masses. What was it that Billy Joel’s sang, “All your choices make you change your mind.”

I long to have a creative project to sink my teeth into. I fantasize about opening a cabaret. Or a food truck. Or to have an art gallery of my own photography. Or all of the above in one place. But the reality of finessing these things takes so much money and energy and introduces so much risk to my carefree lifestyle that I’m unlikely to pursue these daydreams. If manifesting something big like that again is for the grand payoff of the final product, then count me out. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in this long and fascinating journey of life, it’s that the joy of life comes from the daily doing, not being hellbent on achieving something that will make me believe in myself. That’s simply not going to happen. It’s the creative camaraderie that I thrive on, that gets me out of bed. Being part of an imaginative team and having a place where you go to work on transformative projects — now that’s the good stuff. And that is clearly something missing from my life since the demise of Outright Radio.

But until I figure it out or make peace with not having it, then I guess it’s just an endless indulgence in hedonistic pleasures and little moments of joy in exotic places with my boyfriend. Ho hum. Things could definitely be worse.

I do want to write another book. I want to sing more with the Tucson Symphony and I want to play my clarinet in a band. But right now I want to eat some of the beef stew Chuan made for me. And he just called and is coming by to give me a hug.

So that’s what’s next: beef stew and a hug.

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DG: Sounds good to me.

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